(HOST) This morning commentator Philip Baruth tells a story about an ice storm that changed his life, and his view of American life, forever.
(BARUTH) During the Christmas vacation of 1981, I borrowed my mother’s bright red TR7 to go to a party in a little mountain village called Booneville. Booneville, if you’ve never been there, is small enough to fit into an Altoids tin. And a TR7, if you’ve never seen one, is a tiny sports car shaped like an aerodynamic wedge of cheese.
This description will be very important in just a minute.
So my friend Tater and I go to the party, which turns out to be a bust. Now, when you drive back down out of the mountains from Booneville, you eventually hit a very long straight drop called Nine Mile Hill. When we reached the hill, it was raining a little bit, but nothing worrisome.
Just then, I heard the splash of rain on the windshield shift to the tapping of ice crystals. And the headlights picked out a sort of glare ice on the road that I’d never seen before, radiant like Waterford crystal. Away down the hill, I could see headlights scattered here and there in the ditches, shining up at odd, crazy angles.
I hit the brake, but that only freed the car to begin a fast, sickening, downhill spin. I’d steer against a spin, then the car would heel around, I’d counter-steer, then again, then again. Three or four times we went rushing at the steel divider; three or four times we nearly shot off the highway.
And then finally, when the TR7 had finished its downhill run, it slowed and then nudged almost carefully into a snowbank.
I opened my door, and got out of the car only to fall square on my back, a real Three Stooges pratfall. I heard Tater fall and shout too. I tried to get up on my hands and knees, but my hands shot out from under me. The ice was like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. Tater and I eventually realized that about half mile down the hill was a convenience store.
But it took us literally half an hour to get there: we fell so many times that for long stretches we crawled and slid on our butts.
Finally, we reached the Kwik-Stop and found it filled with refugees. And more people were straggling in off the hill. The overwhelmed kid clerking told everyone that the plows and the state police had gone off the road too.
So Tater and I did what nineteen-year-olds do: we ate about six microwave burritos and had a cherry Slushy. And then we saw a woman whisper to the clerk, and he nodded reluctantly, and the woman moved some cans off a low shelf and stretched out to sleep. And before long, everyone in the store had cleared a shelf and fashioned themselves a bunk.
Tater was bivouacked in the pet food; and I had the bread shelf, and I eventually paid the clerk for a loaf of bread to rest my head on. And I remember feeling, as I went to sleep, sort of thankful for that Wonder Bread pillow.
By eight the next morning, the sun had disrupted the little microclimate that produced the magic ice, and suddenly we could walk to our cars.
But that feeling of precariousness – that feeling that modern American comfort can evaporate in a heartbeat – has never left me entirely. I felt it again this weekend, watching New Orleans stage a brave little Mardi Gras, six months out from a storm that never really ended.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.